By Dan Lemke
Corn kernels strewn on the muddy ground and triangular holes cut in the side of the 10,000-bushel steel bin are evidence that something out of the ordinary happened on Jerry Schwartzrock’s Gibbon, Minn., farm.
The ordeal nearly had tragic consequences.
In early October, Schwartzrock was emptying corn from a grain bin north of Gibbon to make room for this year’s soybean crop. A chunk of grain was blocking the sump pit, so he climbed into the bin to dislodge the jam.
“I went in the bin to push the little lump of corn down the sump,” Schwartzrock says. “When the lump went down, some corn in front of me came down to my knees. I didn’t think anything of it because I could get out of that real easy. I didn’t see the corn behind me. It came down up to my waist. Then I knew I was in trouble.”
Things were about to get worse.
“Some corn to the left of me came down up to my neck, and I was really in trouble then,” Schwartzrock says.
Trapped in the corn up to his neck left Schwartzrock with few options, so he yelled for help. Schwartzrock’s sons were working in a shop just yards from the grain bin and heard his cries for help. They called 911, summoning the Gibbon fire department. Firefighters from nearby Winthrop also took part in the rescue.
Rescue workers cut holes in the side of the bin to release some of the grain and put partitions around the wedged farmer to keep additional grain from covering him.
“I was just about going into shock because it’s just so tight,” Schwartzrock says. “You can’t move anything.”
Schwartzrock’s right leg was going numb because it was trapped under a power sweep auger that wasn’t running at the time. His left leg was trapped over the unloading sump.
“My pants were real long and they got down in that sump and it pulled my pants right off,” he says. “I didn’t even know my pants were off because there’s just so much pressure.”
Firefighters then used shovels and a grain vacuum to remove the grain. They put an air mask on Schwartzrock and checked with him frequently to make sure he was doing okay while they feverishly worked to free him.
After four hours, Schwartzrock was freed. He was taken by ambulance to the hospital in New Ulm with minor injuries.
Aside from pain in his foot and some general soreness, Schwartzrock escaped the encounter nearly unscathed, but also changed and willing to share his story.
“I’m just so lucky I’m alive. If I can save one life in the rest of this world, it’s worth it, it really is,” Schwartzrock says.
Schwartzrock says he’s won’t be climbing into a bin again unless the grain is down to the floor.
“I’ve been in corn up to my knees before and if you can’t get out, you just lay down and pull your legs out,” Schwartzrock says. “But I couldn’t lay down because more corn was coming down. I knew if I laid down, I’d be buried.”
Being trapped by grain those four hours gave the Gibbon farmer ample time to think.
“One of the things I thought was, ‘I’m not ready to go yet,’” he says.
His other main consideration was taking care of his family.
“I don’t have a will yet, so as soon as harvest is over, I’m going to make out a will out for my kids,” he said. “It’s going to get done because you just don’t know when your time is going to be.”
In the rush of harvest, Schwartzrock hopes fellow farmers keep safety in mind because he’s proof nearly tragic events can happen in the blink of an eye.
“I just hope somebody sees this and has respect for a commodity that you think could never hurt you, but it can bury you alive in seconds,” Schwartzrock says. “I’ve been in grain bins all my life and I didn’t think it would ever happen to me, but have I got respect for it now. I feel lucky to be alive.”
Lemke writes from Madison Lake, Minn.
The Power of prevention
Grain bin incidents occur frequently because the structures are common across the rural landscape, says Megan Schossow, outreach coordinator with the Upper Midwest Agricultural Safety and Health Center (UMASH) at the University of Minnesota.
Two fatal incidences occurred in late summer in southern Minnesota.
Jerry Schwartzrock of Gibbon was nearly another statistic.
“Grain bin incidents are highly fatal,” Schossow says. “Any engulfment or entrapment has about a 50% fatality rate.”
Schossow says safety experts want to prevent people from entering grain bins because that is the leading contributor to accidents, but that’s not always avoidable. It is, however, dangerous territory.
“There could be deterioration, so the grain doesn’t flow. There’s the potential for pockets to form leading to grain avalanches and then there’s the possibility of bad air quality,” Schossow explains.
If farmers must enter a grain bin, farmers should lock out and tag out grain moving equipment, she says. Anyone entering the bin should wear a safety harness and they should never work in a bin alone.
“Grain bin incidents are preventable,” Schossow says. “These are incidents, not accidents, because they’re highly preventable. But many incidents happen because people bypass safety steps to save time.”
Schossow acknowledges it’s easy to get wrapped up in the stress of harvest and challenging weather conditions, yet it’s vital that farmers don’t take shortcuts. Workers and family members should be trained in how to safely work with grain. A checklist of proper procedures should be available and followed. Making sure seals on doors, walls and roofs are good can prevent moisture buildup, which could lead to spoilage and poor grain movement.
Farm safety checklists are available online.